Much like the squat and deadlift, the path taken by the bar during the bench press will either cause you grief or help you perform to your best ability. The bench press can be a difficult lift to improve for many lifters, but adjusting your bar path may be an easy way to see some relatively quick increases in strength.
So what is the best bench press bar path? The best bench press bar path is one where the barbell follows a slightly curved descent and then a “J” curve on the ascent. This involves scooping, or pushing the bar towards your head as you come off the chest and then moving into a vertical bar path once you’re closer to lockout.
While the letter J is often used to describe the type of bar path, the actual shape may look a bit different depending on your range of motion. In addition, there are several mistakes lifters make in setting up the bench press which may compromise their ability to activate the right muscles necessary.
In this article I’ll go over:
- Why you should care
- The biomechanics of the bench press
- How the bar path changes between individuals
- 6 common mistakes
- Tips for an optimal bar path
Looking for ways to break through a bench press plateau, check out this article: 9 Tips To Break Through A Bench Press Plateau (Definitive Guide)
The Bench Press Bar Path: Why Should You Care?
The bench press bar path is important because of its potential implications for your shoulder health as well as its significant impact on your overall strength.
The bench press is one of the least forgiving lifts when compared to the squat and the deadlift. Small deviations in technique can be the difference between a hitting a personal best or completely tanking the lift.
With that in mind, the bar path of the bench is an important consideration for anyone prioritizing strength performance. In particular, if you are finding you are weakest at the midpoint of your bench press, your bar path may be to blame.
However, beyond just the performance aspect, the bar path will also be either protective or potentially destructive for your future shoulder health.
Your shoulders are an extremely mobile joint, but not every angle and position is optimal in producing force for the bench press. This suggests a poor bar path means your shoulders are in a less optimal position and you may be more vulnerable to injury.
Biomechanics Of The Bench Press Bar Path
To understand why the bench press can’t be pressed in a linear way you have to consider the distance between the chest touchpoint position as well as the end position of a good bench press.
The bench press should start with the barbell directly in line with the shoulder and the upper back. The end position of your bench press should be identical to your start position. We’ll call this point A.
The point where you touch on your chest should a spot where the elbows are directly under, or perpendicular, to the bar. We’ll call this point B.
The lowering phase of the bench press is just a slightly curved but generally linear movement from point A to point B; however, the concentric or pressing portion of the lift is where it changes.
To get from point B and then back to A, the displacement looks like it’s just a diagonal line, however the total distance you travelled is not just vertical, but rather horizontal as well.
This means you are not just pressing up, you are also pressing back.
Therefore, in order to harness the most efficient and greatest amount of force, it is in your best interest to push the barbell back as it comes up off the chest and then focus on locking out vertically near the end of the lift. This will result in what is often referred to as the “J” shaped bar bath.
How The Bar Path For Bench Press Can Change Between Individuals
The exact ideal bar path will differ from person to person due to a few variables affecting range of motion. This means that not everyone’s “J” will look exactly the same because some people will have a greater or lesser horizontal distance to travel.
A wide grip will decrease the range of motion of the bench press whereas a more narrow grip will increase the range of motion.
As such, with a wide grip, the bar path itself will not require as much horizontal force to bring it back and may result in a more linear or vertical bar path.
In contrast, a narrow grip bench press has a greater horizontal distance to travel; Therefore, the degree of shift towards your head off the chest would be more pronounced.
For a deeper look on wide-grip benching, check out: Wide Grip Bench Press: Is It Better? (Definitive Guide)
Those with longer arms have an increased range of motion whereas those with shorter arms will have a shorter range of motion. Similarly to grip variations, those with longer arms will require more strict adherence to a J bar path because of the greater horizontal distance to the lockout position.
This doesn’t mean lifters with shorter arms don’t also employ the same technique, but rather it’s to a smaller degree and will look less visually obvious.
If you are a taller lifter looking to improve your bench press, check out: 5 Tricks For Bench Pressing With Long Arms (Technique for Tall People)
Those with a very high upper back arch will have a shorter range of motion whereas those with a less pronounced arch will have a longer range of motion.
This means those with the high arch will require less overall force to press their bar back to the starting position, similar to those with short arms or a wider grip. Therefore, if you have difficulty creating a large arch focusing on perfecting your bar path to shift the weight to your head may be a significant improvement to your efficiency.
For more information on how and why to arch in the bench press, check out: The Bench Press Arch (How To Do It, Benefits, Is It Safe)
6 Common Bench Press Bar Path Mistakes
There are 6 common mistakes lifters make with their bar path, including:
- Starting position is too high or too low
- Flaring the elbows on the eccentric
- Landing too low, or dumping the bar
- Inconsistent chest touchpoint
- Not finishing the lift where it started
- Releasing the shoulder position
1. Starting Position Is Too High or Too Low
A common mistake stems from not retracting and locking your scapulae in place and therefore either starting with the bar hovering over your face or too far down on the chest.
Neither the high nor the low position is stable and strong and will start you off on the wrong foot. A position that starts too high on your body will result in a touchpoint that is too high and with a low startpoint you may find yourself benching nearly at your waistline instead of your chest.
The starting position of the barbell for a bench press should be directly in line with shoulder and upper back and feel relatively easy to balance and hold still.
2. Flaring the Elbows on Eccentric
You may be starting with the bar in the correct position but the lowering phase of your bar path is too vertical and is hitting above or at your nipple line because you’re flaring your elbows.
If you were to apply the J curve style press to a lift that lands very high on the chest you would then shift your shoulders out of place and not get adequate pec engagement to be strong off the chest. This may also lead to shoulder injuries.
For the eccentric, work on landing the bar somewhere between the bottom of the pec and the top of your rib cage. The landing position should be a spot where your forearms are straight and 90 degrees to the barbell and your elbows are slightly tucked and pointing towards your hips.
For a deeper look on elbow position in the bench press check out Should Your Elbows Be In or Out For Bench Press?
3. Landing Too Low, or Dumping the Bar
Dumping the bar is often characterized as a loss of control of the bar right as it lands on the chest, as if gravity brought it down to your chest and not your own upper body strength.
The reason dumping the bar will affect your bar path is because one of the reasons you may have lost control is because you’ve overshot your landing on your chest where your forearms are no longer directly under the barbell.
Coming back from a position where the barbell is too low on your body can be anywhere from difficult to outright impossible because the force required to move it horizontally back up toward your head during the press is much greater and you’ve likely lost a bit of tension in your upper body.
4. Inconsistent Chest Touchpoint
A strong lifter is one that is consistent with their technique and a common mistake with the bench is someone who’s bar lands half an inch lower or higher on their chest with each passing rep.
This could be from a lack of confidence in your execution of the lift and may be resolved with enough practice, however it’s important to place your focus on landing in the same spot every single time.
This isn’t ideal for your bar path either since you are forcing yourself to adjust with each passing rep and are compromising your ability to get the motor pattern imprinted in your mind, resulting in sloppy technique.
For more tips and an in-depth look on this topic check out our article Where Should The Barbell Touch Your Chest On Bench Press?
5. Not Finishing the Lift Where It Started
A common mistake beginners make is starting with the bar in the correct position in line with their shoulders but then ending in a position where the bar is hovering over their face or alternatively is directly perpendicular to their chest.
This is the result of either pressing directly upwards or not activating the pecs and instead shifting the weight to the shoulders and overshooting the path to the start position.
It’s good to practice getting back into the exact same position each time to not only help perfect your bar path but also make your reps as efficient as possible.
6. Releasing the Shoulder Position
The shoulders are a crucial muscle activated in the bench press meaning that where and how they are positioned will be important for performance.
In order to create a consistent and strong bar path, the shoulder blades need to be retracted to prevent shrugging of the shoulders on the ascent which will destabilize your bar path.
This will often happen in novices or even in some better trained lifters when they do high rep sets. It’s somewhat natural for the shoulder to release after a difficult rep so being mindful of its position before initiating a bench press can prevent this from occurring.
Tips For Keeping The Optimal Bench Press Bar Path
1. Use Chalk to Mark and Practice Your Chest Touchpoint
For those struggling with an inconsistent landing with the barbell, cover the centre knurling of in chalk and let it leave a mark on your t-shirt.
This can be used as a great diagnostic for whether you are being consistent in the first place and additionally can help you track progress over time and will provide a visual cue if that’s something you find helpful.
For more tips and an in-depth look on this topic check out our article Where Should The Barbell Touch Your Chest On Bench Press?
2. Set Your Upper Back
If you are finding that moving at the shoulder is what’s compromising your bar path, a good way to learn to keep them in place is by squeezing your shoulder blades and rolling them down and away from your ears before you even grab the barbell.
However, be aware that unracking the barbell and even doing a couple reps can easily move the shoulders out of place slightly. You will need to learn how to keep them engaged and in place or reset once they have shifted.
This can be achieved by actively applying force both directly into the bench and down the bench toward your hips. It should feel similar to creating leg drive, except with your upper body.
For more information on creating leg drive check out our article on The Proper Way To Use Leg Drive For Bench Press.
3. Keep Your Elbows Tucked
Keeping your elbows tucked will avoid benching too high on the chest and pressing in a directly vertical manner.
While the degree of tucking will vary based on a lifter’s proportions and individual musculature and size, the point is to be able to activate the pecs without over reliance on the shoulders in particular.
From a bird’s eye view, your elbows should be angled downward from your shoulders and close to the body without actually touching the ribcage. This tucking should start to come naturally as you learn to retract and depress your scapula (see tip 2) and activate your chest better.
For more information on when and how to tuck the elbows read our article Should Your Elbows Be In or Out For Bench Press?
4. Record Your Lifts
All the cues and tips in the world can’t help you if you don’t have a sense of what your current bench looks like and whether or not any adjustments are improving it.
This is why recording your lifts is a crucial thing to keep in mind when trying to adjust bar path. You can even go the extra mile and download an app that can draw out your bar path for you such as iron path.
5. Incorporate Dead Presses
One accessory lift you can incorporate into your weekly training is the dead press. This is similar to the pin press except it starts at a dead stop right on the safeties.
This is a great lift to not only build strength off the chest, but also for forcing you into executing a good bar path. This is because in order to move the barbell from a deadstop without losing control, you will need to find the sweet spot of where to position your chest, shoulders, hands and elbows.
I’ve personally had great success with the dead press and definitely worth a shot if you’re still finding inconsistencies and persistent weaknesses off the chest in the bench press.
For more tips on building strength off the chest check out the article: Is Your Bench Press Weak Off The Chest? Try These 6 Things.
The bench press is both loved and hated for being a very technical lift that’s sensitive to minor tweaks in form. With that, while the bar path may seem unconventional, you won’t ever turn back once you have it down pat.
The good news is that the way to the good bar path really just comes to setting up properly, engaging the right muscles and of course, lots and lots of practice.
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.